An outline of secular Buddhism – a living tradition

October 20, 2013

This talk was given to the secular insight group in Napier, New Zealand in October 2013.

Secular Buddhism is not (yet) a school of Buddhism, it has no orthodoxy, no canon, and is in fact markedly heterodox. And it has no particular institutional presence. It’s just a gradually coalescing tendency.

Secular Buddhism is a recent extension of Buddhist modernism (or Don Lopez’s ‘modern Buddhism’) which started around 150 years ago in Sri Lanka, Japan and Burma, and then Buddhist Asia more generally. It was basically Buddhist modernism that attracted converts in the west from the 1960s, and more recently on all continents. Our exposure to Buddhism in the west has almost certainly been limited to Buddhist modernism.

The central distinguishing themes of Buddhist modernism, derived from Buddhism’s encounter with western modernity, also permeate secular Buddhism. They comprise the influence of what Charles Taylor identifies as:

  • Protestantism – its focus on individuation, the inner life, the dignity of lay practice, the downgrading of religious ritual, the end of priestly privilege
  • Rationalism and scientific naturalism, and its ‘disenchantment of the world’
  • Romanticism – the countervailing tendency against rationalism – that tends to re-enchant the world by honouring emotions, the imagination and the mysterious, but has also coloured psychological approaches to human wellbeing.

These three ‘discourses of modernity’ crystallise in two very important emphases:

  • on living this transitory, everyday, earthly life well, not pining for some later or other life on some other plane of existence, and
  • the shift away from outward forms and ritual, towards interiority, reflexivity and self-scrutiny – becoming a being of depth.

In brutal summary we might say that Buddhist modernism came to life within – or within some proximity to – pre-modern religious institutions. But as it intensified, those links became increasingly attenuated, such that many forms of Buddhist modernism today have broken away either from religious institutions or from the Buddhist tradition as such (in which case they often stay in touch with the tradition, usually respectfully, and attract titles such as ‘the mindfulness movement’ and ‘post-Buddhism’).


Secular Buddhism seeks to express Buddhism as a living tradition and to remain within it. The word secular comes from the Latin saeculum, originally meaning a human lifespan, but later understood as a century, as in the French siècle. The term carries the implication that all manifestations of human life, including human practice, thought and understanding, need to be understood as historically situated and culturally embedded.  These days there’s a whole school of historical interpretation – contextualism, or the Cambridge School – that affirms this approach. Its founder is the 89-year-old New Zealand historiographer, JGA Pocock.

What did the Buddha actually teach? Even the most literate reading of Pali texts can take us only so far. Who was he talking to? Why did they listen to him? What was he alluding to? What was going on around them that was so self-evident to them that no one commented on it? How would his audience have understood his teaching in the context they shared? We need to know a lot about the Buddha’s saeculum, and about our own, to trace our living practice and tradition back to him, and make it relevant to us today.

What distinguishes secular Buddhism from many other forms of Buddhist modernism visible in the west today?

  • A close study of suttas in the historical context of the Gangetic Plain in the 5th century BCE, and the Buddha’s own life story to the extent to which we can extrapolate it from available sources, and in the absence of later monastic accretions;
  • Absence of ritual and formulaic meditation practices (which can be seen as ritualistic); and an open, exploratory approach to practice informed by sutta study and the current conversation around dharma practice;
  • A preference for small sanghas and other practice communities, ones which embody progressive principles of association (flat, democratic organisations that are inclusive, egalitarian and diverse);
  • A critical eye on large-scale religious institutions, past and present, and their products, such as the Abhidhamma and its byproducts – formulaic meditation practices.
  • Ethical commitments that expand out from the five precepts to include today’s central precepts around, for instance, world peace, environmental sustainability, social justice, human rights, and gender inclusiveness and equality;
  • Receptivity to resonances within our secular culture, such as ancient Greek thought, phenomenology and existentialism, and psychoanalysis. Like the dharma itself, these traditions focus on the human condition – its discomforts, possibilities and responsibilities – all mediated by our unique human consciousness. For this reason, they significantly add value to the buddhadharma, and allow it to speak in a familiar, contemporary idiom.

Getting a fix on secular Buddhism

  • Some recent debates have pulled secular Buddhism from its proper domains towards sterile arguments about supernatural and mythological truth claims, especially rebirth. The process is due to:
    (a) a cultural factor: the persistence of religious belief as such in the US at qualitatively higher levels than in the rest of the western world where ‘demythologisation’ has gone a lot further; and
    (b) a culturally influential intellectual factor: the academic dominance of Anglo-American ‘analytic’ philosophy, which focuses on what we think we know (epistemology, truth-claims), at the expense of the rival school of western philosophy, Continental philosophy, which focuses on being and subjectivity, that is, wisdom (think: phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics). Here ‘subjectivity’ includes moral agency and individuation.
  • The buddhadharma – and secular Buddhism in particular – enjoys a close affinity with Continental philosophy, including an understanding of being in terms of time-based experience. Both disciplines ask questions about how to understand human consciousness under conditions of constant flux, risk, vulnerability, and finitude – in other words, in terms of the human condition. In each case wisdom starts from posing the most fundamental of all questions: given the human condition and one’s own individual provenance, how should one live? What matters, and why? What possibilities and ethical responsibilities does conscious being entail?
  • Secular Buddhism has (somewhat haphazardly) already gained quite a lot from Continental philosophy (Ñanavīra Thera, Batchelor etc), and it can deepen and broaden itself by more systematic cross-fertilisation with the Continental tradition.
  • Forget the question: what is the true (‘real’ or ‘core’) dharma? There is no such thing. We should instead press the more sustainable if also more modest claim that secular dharma is just as canonically available as the older more familiar religious readings, and none of them can claim exclusive status as the ‘true’ dharma. All currents rely on ‘cherry-picking’ in the canon. No-one can claim to be in exclusive possession of the truth, or of the ‘true’ dharma. Secular dharma – like other strands – can properly base itself in the early teachings. But it can also take responsibility for its canonical selectivity as one appropriate to our culture and times.
  • The Abhidhamma and its derivatives – formulaic meditation practices such as the Goenka and Mahasi techniques – suppress subjectivity and individuation. The Abhidharma arose as an interpretation of the dharma appropriate to regimenting celibate men in total institutions and standardising their meditative experience. That is the agenda essentially still baked into formulaic vipassana techniques, even though they’re now taught to lay people of both sexes. They call on us to junk a great deal of our meditative experience as ‘not meditation’. In meditative terms, then, today’s non-formulaic (often sutta-based) versions of insight meditation and other forms of meditation (associated with Toni Packer, Jason Siff, Barry Magid and others) serve the ends of secular Buddhism in a crucial way.
  • Secular Buddhism needs to be wary of the wider psychologisation of Buddhism – these days a source of considerable prestige to Buddhism as such in the west, but also of the idea that Buddhism is – and can be sold as – a psychology. But dharma practice and psychology are separate disciplines and cultural practices, even if their interests converge to some extent. What separates them is an ambiguous frontier, not a clear delineation, and so cross-fertilisation is in order as long as the one isn’t reduced to the other.
    Psychotherapeutic applications of mindfulness are not an aspect of secular Buddhism (though a conversation between them is clearly in order), and secular Buddhism is not a form of psychotherapy (ditto).


Batchelor, Stephen (2010) Confession of a Buddhist atheist (NY: Spiegel & Grau)
Critchley, Simon (2001) Continental philosophy: a very short introduction (Oxford: OUP)
Dawson, Geoff, and Liz Turnbull (2006) ‘Is mindfulness the new opiate of the masses? Critical reflections from a Buddhist perspective’, Psychotherapy in Australia vol.12 no.4, pp.2-6
Faure, Bernard (2009) Unmasking Buddhism (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell)
McMahan, David (2008) The making of Buddhist modernism (New York: Oxford University Press)
Magid, Barry (2008) Ending the pursuit of happiness: a Zen guide (Boston: Wisdom, 2008)
Ñanavīra Thera (2001) Clearing the path: writings of Ñanavīra Thera (1960–1965) (Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Cultural Centre)
Siff, Jason (2010) Unlearning meditation: what to do when instructions get in the way (Boston & London: Shambhala)
Woodhead, Linda, and Paul Heelas (2000) Religion in modern times: an interpretive anthology (Oxford and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell)



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